After the boost from Skinner, Earnhardt was gone. For once he was able to keep the late-lap battles in his rearview mirror: Gordon and Wallace rubbed broadside; Mayfield tapped Earnhardt from behind; Gordon's engine failed with three laps to go; and Labonte swooped high around Mayfield into second place. Then Andretti became entangled in a second wreck, this time with Jimmy Spencer and Lake Speed. "I saw it in my mirror," said Earnhardt, "and I knew when I saw the white flag [signaling one lap to go] and the yellow displayed together that I was going to win the race if nothing happened to my car by the time I got back to the start-finish line."
Though he ran the final caution lap at extraordinary speed, just to get the race over with, Earnhardt claimed he wasn't anxious in the last few laps. "People say, 'Did you hear things in the car? Did you wonder who was going to pass you?' " he said. "I wasn't thinking about what could happen. I was thinking about what I was doing and what I had to do. I was working to keep the race car up front. I was working to do that until somebody turned me over"—a reference to last year's late-race rollover after losing a showdown with Gordon—"or I got to the finish, one of the two. I got to the finish line without anybody turning me over."
Earnhardt said, at first, that he "cried a little bit" when he knew the race was won. Then he thought better of admitting to such emotion. "I don't think I really cried," he said. "My eyes watered up."
Mustn't cry, old man. That would be too much like Gordon, who at the NASCAR awards dinner the previous December in New York City, had wept openly upon accepting his second Winston Cup in three years, while Earnhardt sat smirking in the audience. But on Sunday the gracious Gordon, who wound up 16th, smiled and said that Earnhardt "did what he does every year here—except he kept doing it all the way to the end. We all would have loved to have been in Victory Lane, but we're all real happy for Dale. If we couldn't be there, we all loved for him to be there. He's earned it, man. He deserves it."
Earnhardt's drive toward Victory Lane was slowed considerably when crewmen from virtually every team poured out onto pit road to congratulate him with high fives and cheers. His arrival was further delayed when he cut some doughnuts in the infield grass near the finish line. When he ascended to the press room, high above the speedway, he pointed out the artistry of his spins through the grass. He'd cut a beautiful 3, his car number since 1984. "I'm pretty good at writin', huh?" said Earnhardt.
After the winner's interview had concluded, he walked off without the frayed monkey, leaving it forgotten on the floor. Then, in a back room of the tower, he sat on a stool and leaned back against a wall, his intense eyes going soft as he thought back on how far he had come, up from the mill town, up from the dirt tracks, up through the years of trying to explain again and again and again why stock car racing's best driver hadn't won its biggest race.
"Now, I won't have to answer that question anymore," he said. "The years of disappointment, the close calls, all the chapters have been written. Now the 20th chapter is in. To win this race is something you can't, I mean, you really can't put into words. You can talk about it all day, but you can't put into words the feelings you have"—and here his voice rose and cracked—"inside. It's everything you've ever worked hard to do, and you've finally accomplished it. It's just pretty damn impressive, especially with everything we've done here in the past and all the shortcomings we've had in this race."
Earlier, in front of the media, Earnhardt had played his favorite and best-known role of his prime—that of a cocky young tough, a bit of the rakish s.o.b. Did this win take him back to the sort of thrill he'd had, say, upon his first Winston Cup victory, at Bristol in 1979, on his way to Rookie of the Year honors? Or his first superspeedway win, at Atlanta the next year? He shook his head slowly, rolled his eyes and then cast them downward. "This is it. This is it. There ain't nothin' gonna top this," Earnhardt said. But he was feeling young again. "Well, maybe that eighth championship."